Countdown

by dossier

Notes & Warnings

10.

Though the Daedalus was in near-earth orbit, awaiting the return of the Odyssey, her crew was also hard at work doing repairs, and didn't have time to stop and beam people all over on a whim. During alpha and beta shift, there were four set times for getting beamed point to point. Gamma shift was more flexible.

John watch ticked over to oh-one-hundred hours as he beamed over from the Mountain. He was going to go postal if he had to spend one more night underground — nicknamed the Dungeon — at the beck and call of every one from fresh-faced aides to General Landry.

Well, he probably wasn't going to escape Landry, there was no end in sight to the meetings and debriefings. He hadn't been resaddled with Babbis and Wallace during this semi-exile, but he had been returned to the stern gaze of a commanding officer who didn't like him very much.

John had finally wrangled a three day pass, and though he'd like nothing better than spending it face down in his own room, Teyla and Ronon had plans. They'd both evinced an interest in seeing more of Earth while they were here, which John had endorsed and encouraged, much to his own detriment. He wanted to go with them, to show them this strange world for which the two of them had sacrificed so much, but he was stuck under the Mountain for the foreseeable future.

He checked in with the temporary gate tech to pick up a city radio, and inquired if Dr. McKay was in the city. Receiving a negative on Rodney's locale, he went straight to his quarters.

The cloak made Atlantis a cellular blackout zone and in his haste to get out from under Landry and the Mountain, he'd neglected to call Rodney. It was a measure of how far they'd grown apart. He didn't really want to dwell on it, because when he stopped to think about it, their separation was nearly a physical pain in his gut.

Which wasn't to say that he hadn't seen Rodney at all in the last three months. They'd managed carve out a few minutes together like ships passing in the night, though it was usually during the endless meetings and debriefings. Homeworld, the IOA and the SGC insisted on dissecting every single mission and decision made in the last three years, and they hadn't even broached the subject of Atlantis' return to Pegasus.

In his opinion, the Brass were just being overly captious, taking advantage of the fact that the expedition members were trapped on Earth, but being too busy to think was an asset.

Rodney had as little spare time as he did, though his leash was slightly longer as a civilian. In addition to the infernal calls to front and center, Rodney had to oversee repairs to Atlantis. The damage done to the city in the battle had been extensive and the ongoing repairs were hampered by the generous vacation schedule mandated for all civilian personnel except senior staff.

John suspected that Rodney was probably using most of his free time to see Jennifer. He was sick and tired of his low grade jealousy; Rodney was happy, that should make him happy. It was probably a good thing they didn't see each other very often. He wasn't sure that he could effectively mask his misery — Rodney didn't deserve that — nor was he even sure why it made him so miserable. They were coworkers that happened to become best friends under fire. John shook his head in disgust at himself; the story of his life on an endless loop.

The empty corridors were dimly lit. The vanishingly finite ZPM power kept the cloak running, while the rest of the city was hooked into naquadah generators. All non essential systems were shut down.

His quarters were dark and musty smelling, and he opened the balcony doors to the chilly sea air. Atlantis on Earth wasn't that different than Atlantis anywhere in Pegasus until you looked outside. He missed the extra moons, and the brightly lit Golden Gate bridge outside his balcony window was still an incongruous sight.

The ocean smelled different here, too, but the Pacific was an old familiar friend. John left the balcony doors open when he crawled into bed, and fell asleep to the constant, dolorous sound of the warning buoys around the city.

When John shuffled into the mess hall mid-morning, it was deserted. Anyone who remained on board was already hard at work. Some one had left a copy of the Chronicle, and he picked it up as he headed towards the serving line. He'd missed the hot buffet by several hours, but a newspaper, cornflakes with cold, whole milk and a sliced banana was a perfect way to start the day.

John was unfolding the paper at a table on the balcony when Ronon dropped into a chair across the table. "Mornin'."

Ronon and Teyla had completed their debriefs a couple of months ago, and presented with the choice of the SGC or Atlantis, they had both remained here. John didn't blame them at all, it was home, though it meant he'd seen as little of them as he had Rodney, but the constant trail of emails had made it more bearable. "Hey, Ronon. How's things here?" John hummed as he blissfully crunched his way through a bite.

"Quiet. Boring. Zelenka's had us manually inspecting power conduits."

John chuckled, he'd like to do nothing more than get filthy crawling around in Atlantis' guts. "Is the paperwork ready?"

"All done. Woolsey has it, we just need to get it before we go."

"He's here?" That was almost as unusual as his own presence aboard. "What did Amelia say?"

"Said 'have passport, will travel.'"

"Good. When do you guys want to go to the city?"

"Whenever you're ready."

"I'll take care of it and let you know."

Ronon slapped the table lightly and stood up with a grin. "Thanks, John."

He suspected there was a bone crushing hug coming his way in the future, but Ronon was circumspect in his displays of affection; it would come later when they weren't in public. "No problem, buddy."

John finished his cornflakes and took the paper with him back to the control room to request permission to beam out of Atlantis and into San Francisco. Between multiple airports, Travis AFB and the intricacies of obtaining a secure landing zone and avoiding the ATC radar, the jumpers were restricted for anything other than extreme emergencies. Beaming down was a crap shoot unless you provided the Daedalus with your own secure location, and he'd leased a pool bungalow from one of his Stanford frat buddies expressly for that purpose. John had been there once, but it wasn't a wasted expense. Everyone knew where the spare key was if they needed to get into (and back from) the city.

After John signed them up for a slot on the one o'clock beam-out, he stopped at Woolsey's office, knocked on the glass wall and said, "Hey."

Richard was in his version of day wear, a suit and tie. "Colonel, I'd heard you were in the city."

"Just long enough to get things rolling. We're bugging out at thirteen hundred."

"Then I'll give this to you now." Richard handed him a sheaf of paper with a standard mission prospectus on top. "I believe everything is in order. When I made inquiries at the IOA, Dr. McKay had already had words with Canadian representative about their diplomatic status. They only require a Canadian passport photo, and Consul is prepared to see them and can have the documents ready in a few days."

John took it and sank into a chair as he skimmed over the request. It was mildly hilarious that Teyla had elected to tackle getting a vacation as though it was a mission to a hostile planet, but it made sense. These were the tools she had at hand. John didn't ask about the provenance of the bogus Canadian birth certificates, but he assumed they'd stand up to official scrutiny. The rest of the packet was stuff he'd seen before in electronic form; projected itinerary, estimated per diems, and lists of hotels.

John had considered asking them to wait until he had the time to go with them, to return the favor for Teyla's guidance through the years. He had a selfish desire to see their reactions to this messy world, though he honestly couldn't see an end to the meetings and mountains of paperwork (He'd forgotten that Earth meant actual paper). John stood up, and nodded. "Thank you for taking care of this."

"It's my pleasure."

He radioed Teyla as he trotted down the stairs back to his room.

"John, it's good to hear your voice.'"

"You too. It's good to be back, even for a few hours."

"If you would prefer to stay here, we can delay our business on shore."

"No, I've already put us on the list for the afternoon beam out and picked up the stuff from Woolsey. Where are you?"

"I am with Radek in his lab, and we will finish shortly."

"I'll meet you in the gate room, then."

John radioed Ronon with the same information, and his business was complete. He received all of the updates on Atlantis' status, and there really wasn't anything else he had to do. He hadn't been officially removed from his post, but the few military personnel garrisoned here were not under his command. He spent an hour just wandering around, letting the city fill in the empty place under his ribs and the low hum of Atlantis rumble in his head.

John eventually wandered back to his room, showered and packed, made his way back to the control room. Teyla and Ronon were already there, talking in low tones to Richard. John stopped far enough away to give them privacy.

The two of them were decked out in regular earth-style street wear. Ronon wasn't so surprising, it was the same jeans and collared shirt paired with a jacket that he always wore. Teyla preferred to shop at vintage thrift stores; the scarf skirt paired with her Athosian boots and jacket managed to work together perfectly. It was the huge white plastic sunglasses that threw him off.

The 'gate' tech announced the Daedalus was ready to start relocating. Richard wasn't a tactile person; where Elizabeth would've ended the conversation with a hug, for Teyla at least, or Sam with a handshake for both, Richard gave Teyla and Ronon a formal bow of the head, acknowledged John with another brief nod, and turned towards the stairs to his office.

John put one foot forward as Atlantis dissolved, stumbled briefly as the Daedalus resolved around him, then nearly fell over as they materialized in the pool house in a perfect triangle. John let his backpack slide to the floor. "Somebody was in a hurry," he grumbled as he turned towards Teyla. "Hi."

"John, it's very good to see you." Teyla reached out with both hands, and he met her halfway, head tipped down towards hers.

"Yeah, I missed you too." John stilled beneath her warm hands, and soaked up the calmness Teyla radiated until she stepped back. He eyed Ronon warily. "Just don't throw my back out," he warned as Ronon scooped him up in a bear hug. "Good to see you, too buddy," he wheezed. Once freed from the breathtaking grip, he slapped Ronon on the back, and took a good look around the apartment.

It looked lived in, comfortable. On the table there was a laptop attached to a printer, dishes in the drainer ready to be put away. One of Teyla's handwoven blankets was carefully folded over the back of a recliner.

"We come here often," Teyla said as she laid a hand on his arm. "Thank you, it has been very convenient."

John wasn't sure what she'd seen on his face, perhaps envy. He smiled and looked over at her. "Not a problem, that's what its here for. You guys find anything fun to do?"

Ronon snorted. "Only if it happens to be on the cable car line."

"Or comes delivered in a box," Teyla rejoined sharply.

He could tell this wasn't a new argument, and it was interesting that both of them were throwing around casual hyperboles because he was certain that neither of them rode around in a cable car all day, or constantly ate pizza. They were explorers at heart.

Then again, he could almost see it going down that way. "You know where you're going to get passport photos?"

Teyla pulled out a sleek Blackberry and tapped a few keys with a stylus. "There are several within walking distance of the cable car line," Ronon rolled his eyes at this, "but it's only two miles to Embarcadero Center, if we wish to walk."

The odds of it raining in March were fairly slim. John walked to the door and opened it, the scents and sounds of the city rushed over him on a rush of cold, brisk wind. He stood there for a moment, relishing the clear blue sky and a few days of freedom. "I'd really like to walk, if you don't mind."

~*~

John spent the next couple of days preparing for Teyla and Ronon to take their grand tour. and Ronon talked Amelia Banks into being their escort.

The two of them were used to traveling light, so they didn't need luggage. His role was mainly to sit back and be entertained as Teyla deftly negotiated with the travel agent, who looked rather stunned by the time the negotiations were complete, for an around the world trip for three. John paid for the trip and made arrangements for credit cards and cell phones, and confiscated all of Ronon's knives.

 

Rodney finally crawled out of wherever he'd been holed up, and went with John to the airport to see them off. With a last wave, Teyla, Ronon and Amelia disappeared beyond the security check point.

"So, been busy?" John said with a smirk.

"Incredibly. In between fighting off the IOA and repairing the damage to Atlantis, I didn't even have time to see Jen long enough to kiss her goodbye."

John tamped down on the uncharitable, sarcastic, 'too bad', and went with a shrug. "Me either. Not that I would, but you know. The same. Busy. How did she manage to get leave?"

"I don't know. I wanted to go with her, meet her father, but I have to be in Washington tomorrow."

"Yeah," John said. He had to be back at the SGC at 0900, but he wanted to take advantage of his last few hours of freedom. "You free for the evening?"

"Possibly. What did you have in mind?"

"I'm feeling nostalgic. There's a couple of places right off Union Square, should still be there."

"Still?"

"Practically San Fran institutions. If they aren't, I'm sure we can find something."

Rodney shrugged and looked at his watch. "I could eat."

"Great." John headed towards the BART station, and found a car that was nearly empty. Rodney chose a seat in back of the car, and John sat down next to him, leaned in and said quietly, "Listen, we need to get with Richard to talk, develop an exit strategy and go on the offensive, because we're never going back if we don't."

When Rodney turned his head to reply, he was practically close enough to kiss. "Yeah. I've got a couple of ideas."

John stared for a moment, then slowly leaned back. "Yeah, me too. Can't talk about it here, though."

"You want to go home instead?" Rodney gave a sharp, significant nod towards the Bay.

"Beer and a slice, first. Just want to get out, remember why we came back."

Rodney leaned back in and whispered, "You saved earth for a beer and pizza?"

"We did, Rodney. We did."

 

9.

The plan was all conjecture and theory, but there were glimmerings of acceptance and Rodney couldn't slow down, had to keep ramming it down their throats until they acceded.

Jennifer knocked on the open door of his office. "Hey, Rodney. Got a few minutes?"

He stood up with a grin to give her a kiss. "For you, always."

She didn't smile as she turned her head. "About that, actually."

"I'm sorry. I wish I could have gone with you, but it's a never ending battle."

"I know, Rodney, I understand. I really do, but," Jennifer paused to take a deep breath, "I've resigned. I'm not going back."

Rodney sat in his chair with a thump. "Why? What's wrong — is your father — "

"Daddy's fine, Rodney. It's just... Look. I love you, just not enough to always be in third place. Atlantis is always going to come first for you, professionally and personally. I want to be number one — not get the exhausted leftovers from some crisis or experiment."

"Things are going to change, I can do better, take some time off―"

"No, you can't. It's not even about being able to see one another right now. It's about focus. This is the pinnacle for you, everything that you've dreamed and worked for, and for me, it's not. I learned a lot here, grown in unimaginable ways, but it's not everything I want. I never loved it like you do."

"Atlantis might not even be allowed to go back. I could leave — there's a hundred companies that would kill to have me."

"That's true, but Atlantis would always be there, the thing you didn't finish. It's not about children, picket fences and Sunday dinner. This is more about me than you. I know that I'm never going to be your 100, 75 or even 50 percent; but I don't want to be the thing that held you back, either.

"It was very convenient, but it's just not going to work out for me."

"Jennifer..."

"Let me put it this way: Atlantis for me was more like a pit stop, and it's the winners circle for you. I want you to be happy, Rodney, and I want to be happy, and those are two mutually exclusive goals."

"I'm sorry, I really am."

"Don't be. We gave it a shot, it didn't work out, and that's the end of it. I'm sorry that I wasn't the one. There's someone out there for you, Rodney, with the same goals, the same needs. I'm not that person."

"What are you going to do?"

"I haven't decided. Something where I won't be instantly vaporized or have the lives of an entire galaxy hanging in the balance if I get it wrong."

"The SGC would have you in a minute."

Jennifer offered him a small smile as she left his office. "I know, and I'm thinking about it. Good luck, Rodney. I really hope that you win, get back out there, and accomplish everything you really want."

Rodney closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. The bitch of it was he thought that he had found that someone.

His watched beeped, and Rodney shut down his laptop, and took the transporter to the gateroom. The replacement 'gate' tech — he could never remember his name — was on duty. "I need to go to the mountain." Rodney signed out and turned in his radio, while the gate tech called for a beam out.

~*~

He figured that John's predilection for hole-in-the-wall dives was a holdover from his youthful rebellion, turned into a long-term habit. Rodney normally avoided places like this; his preference was for well-lit restaurants (for ease of reading while drinking) where he felt safe, but they were also problematic due to the prevalence of rugrats.

The dive-bar syndrome also put John's easy acceptance of the various Pegasus roadhouses and taverns into context, though, and conversation didn't exactly require a lot of light. The heavily tattooed waiter — Rodney couldn't make an exact determination of gender — dropped off the bottles of beer.

Rodney broke first. "So, Jennifer broke up with me last week."

John frowned, then licked his lips and asked, "You doing okay with that?"

Rodney shrugged. He'd definitely been hanging around John more than was good for him. "I'll live."

"Yes, you will. You've managed twice now, I guess you can do it again."

"If I can find someone willing to overlook a few things."

"Rodney," John started, but Rodney barreled over it.

"No, what Jennifer said didn't have anything to do with my presumed character flaws, and it seemed constructive at the time — like an exit poll." Though Jennifer had had good solid reasons and a well formed argument, Rodney was certain that he hadn't quite figured out everything she'd meant. It wasn't like he had a lot of spare time for excessive introspection on the nature of interpersonal relations and the concomitant failures.

"All right, I'll bite — what did she say?"

"That our priorities weren't in synch, that she didn't always want to be in third place behind Atlantis."

John smirked. "Third? What's on second?"

Rodney shook his head, but he was smiling. "What's had me stumped. I thought for a while that she meant my professional goals and personal interest in Atlantis were who and what, and yet there's someone out there with similar goals and interests?"

"She broke up with you because of a hypothetical 'someone'?"

Rodney ignored that, because he wasn't sure, not at all. "Do I seem like the kind of person that would settle for someone that's willing to be in third place?"

"I don't know." John managed to say it with a straight face.

Rodney had completely left himself wide open for that. "Yeah, very punny. Seriously, that whole scenario reminds me too much of my parents, and I saw what it did to my mother. It's why I was so furious at Jeannie."

John took a healthy drink and leaned in towards Rodney. "Maybe there isn't a static place order. First, second, third, they might be fluid, dynamic, and that 'someone' would recognize that, be okay with it."

Rodney just hummed and gave John a narrow look in the dim light. "Yeah?"

John just nodded and took another drink of beer. "Yeah."

~*~

He thought Rodney would've been more upset when Jennifer dumped him, but he seemed to be dealing with it. John was pissed at Jennifer on Rodney's behalf, and, if he were honest, ashamed of his guilty relief. It wasn't as if Rodney had ever given any more than a glimmer of interest in him beyond friends. Though he was always aware that he wasn't entirely closed to the idea, John wasn't surprised that he considered himself that 'someone.'

But, he'd been caught in the crossfire of Rodney's girlfriend issues in the past, and he wasn't eager to do that again. This was something that Rodney was going to have to figure out all on his own. John wasn't even sure what he'd do if Rodney really did figure it out from the few hints and vague flirting, but he was always willing to go by visual flight rules.

Right now John was more annoyed that Jennifer's resignation had put a minor cramp in their plans. The IOA was finally coming around to the idea that protecting Earth from the Wraith was better accomplished from the front, rather than the rear, and they were counting on eliminating the Wraith threat with the Beckett-Keller retrovirus.

John dismissed the corporal on duty outside Todd's cell and closed the door.

"Sheppard. Have you come to kill me at last?"

"Maybe. Depends — hungry yet?"

"I could eat."

"Well, I'm not planning on being your meals on wheels again, so here's the deal. I get the all of the rest of your ZPM's and you get to live. I'll even let you go free when we get back to Pegasus."

"And if there are no more?"

"I don't believe that for a minute. Even if you keep one or two, who's to say that you won't be betrayed by your next underling? I can't afford to have ZPM-powered hives loose in Pegasus, and tactically speaking, I don't think you want any other Hive to gain the upper hand. An escalation of this nature is untenable."

"And if I should refuse?"

"No paperwork, no waiting for authorization. Think about it."

 

8.

Teyla dropped the heavy bags on her bed and began to unpack. Though John, Rodney, Aiden, Elizabeth, and others had attempted many times to explain 'Earth', it had never been very clear. They'd always ended with, "It's just something that you have to see for yourself." When she walked through the airport departure gate―it seemed a lifetime ago―her only goal had been to finally see it for herself.

John had called it the 'grand tour', and it had certainly been that; a necessary part of her education. She had seen so much that it was difficult to remember every experience, but her overall reaction was mixed. So many awful things. Places they had been warned to not walk, seen so much misery, that for the first time, Teyla understood the belief held by some that the cost of the expedition could be spent better elsewhere.

There had been many wondrous things, too, and from those, an idea had been born. Fantastic museums of art, science and engineering, vast libraries, universities and hospitals.

The most surprising revelation was that, not very long ago, most of Earth's cultures had been on a par with which she was familiar. The Hoffans, Olesians, the Genii — even Michael — proved that the same can-do spirit existed, and the Coalition was a spark to be fanned into flame.

Her galaxy was at the tipping point, and she and Ronon had a unique perspective, one that the Coalition desperately needed. The possibilities, what could be realistically accomplished given the proper motivation. Certain they wouldn't be believed, they'd documented their travels, gathering books and brochures to illustrate the premise they planned to put forth to the Coalition.

Teyla intended to wrench her galaxy out of the enforced entropy that so few had escaped, to build a legacy for Torren, and all the future generations. It would be difficult; more so if Atlantis did not return to Pegasus, but not impossible. Atlantis and the assistance of the IOA and SGC was not the key — only an important part of the puzzle. They'd had one master for too long to exchange it for another, however benevolent, and anything that was built for them would never last.

~*~

Ronon sorted through his new gear. Amelia had bought the first cheap camera, but Teyla and Amelia had been disappointed with their results and handed it over to him. He discovered that he had a knack for photography. His skills had quickly outstripped the inexpensive camera, and with John's short text message, "knock yourself out," he had bought several professional models in Singapore, including a video camera. He'd documented everything they'd seen and experienced, good and bad, because no one would believe some of it if they just told them.

Earth wasn't the same as Sateda, but there was enough similarity that he'd had fierce pangs of homesickness, and that was what had convinced him. Though the Hoffans were gone, Sateda destroyed and her people scattered, those worlds could still serve as a footstep to the future, just as the Expedition had used Goa'uld and Ancient technology as their catapult.

The pictures of Earth were only the beginning. So much had been lost, entire peoples culled to extinction with nothing left to mark their passage. He could change that as documentarian and videographer.

Teyla would build a galactic center for medicine, justice and education, and he would record that for posterity. He'd fight, too, but for the first time he had to plan for a future without the Wraith.

Ronon set up the printer, and began sorting through the thousands of still images for their presentation to the Coalition.

~*~

Richard thought that Teyla and Ronon's plan — code name Bootstrap, courtesy of the Colonel — was certainly feasible, but more importantly, it was the kind of visionary agenda that the IOA had initially supported when they'd received the invitation to meet with Coalition, rather than a poorly disguised attempt at revenge.

It was one more positive bullet point for their bid to return to Pegasus. He had personally guaranteed Atlantis' participation to the Coalition, but he'd left with so many reservations about the viability of the organization. The Coalition had no true structure or focus, and without the spark of imagination of what they could accomplish, he'd been certain that it would fail sooner than later.

Bootstrap was the rallying point, a common goal that would bring the galaxy together and create something of which they could all be proud.

Richard looked over the final proposal for the IOA one last time. Everything was contingent upon rebuilding Earth's planetary defenses, for without that, they would never be allowed to leave.

~*~

Seriously, Rodney didn't see what was so difficult about the concept, that the IOA kept calling for meeting after meeting and he was going to stab himself if they had to go through this again.

The conference room was too cold. Teyla and Richard seemed comfortable, and Rodney was glad he'd worn a suit and tie, though a pair of long johns underneath would've been a nice addition. He suspected faulty temperature control, because a too-hot room — keep 'em sweating — would have been a more appropriate tactic.

John was at the front of the room, giving his portion of the presentation that Richard had insisted would be an excellent expenditure of the political capitol he'd earned. John had put up a token resistance to the suggestion, but had relented with unusual good grace, that he'd 'take one for the team'.

Rodney had every word and nuance memorized, and Richard was probably engaged in studying their opponents, so he let himself simply watch John.

This was a side of John that he'd never seen before; he looked comfortable in his dress uniform, cool, calm and utterly in command and every inch the officer of his rank as he plowed through the questions and objections of Carl Strom, the chief brain-dead idiot of the IOA.

Rodney was familiar with the hint of smug confidence that John exuded. He found that extremely attractive, figured that was the draw that kept women fluttering around John like demented moths.

Huh. Objectively, John was a good looking guy, but attractive was...

Rodney felt like Wile E. Coyote, as the proverbial anvil slammed into him. Granted, he'd been gnawing his way through the tangle of Jennifer's comments for a while, but epiphanies couldn't be rushed. Personal revelations were usually courtesy of life threatening events, and thankfully those had been far and few between since their return to Earth.

John was already his best friend, it was a given that they shared common goals and interests. He didn't get upset if a project meant they didn't see each other for days or weeks. In all fairness, John's dalliances with various princesses, ascended and near-ascended women, and leather-clad piratical captains were rare enough, and John always came home, like some gravitational constant at work.

That he meant something to John as well was hard to miss, even for him. The look in John's eye when he'd wanted to feed himself to Todd to save Jeannie — that wasn't the look of a commander trying to maintain an asset, he'd been genuinely horrified, had then done the almost unthinkable to make sure that he couldn't do it anyway.

John was the most important person in his life. He remembered, he had proof, had seen the tapes of himself lost and alone and calling for John. He didn't have to worry about starting a relationship — they'd already been together for years. John had forgiven him for the professional perfidies of Elizabeth's nanites, Doranda, as well as for his failed attempts with Katie and Jennifer.

John's obscure comment about the fluidity of importance suddenly made sense. When John sat down next to him, he realized that Teyla was at the front of the room, and he'd completely missed the rest of John's presentation.

John asked in a near whisper, "Buddy, you okay there?"

"What?"

"You were staring at me — is something wrong?"

Rodney squirmed a little. "Ah, no. I'm fine. Just thinking."

John raised an eyebrow, but let it go.

The question that remained would be far more difficult to answer.

 

7.

The Odyssey's Asgard database provided a crucial element that made the wormhole drive safer and more efficient, but it depended on the last dregs of one of Atlantis' zero point modules; it was enough for one round trip, given a ship's much smaller mass. Rodney and Radek were already aboard the Daedalus, finalizing the installations of the revised protocol and the zero point module. Time was of the essence. The cloak would fail in a few months and Atlantis would be revealed, and borrowing the zero point module only shortened the window by a few weeks.

It was a tangled mess of a plan; too many things depended upon Todd's word and cooperation, which John considered unreliable at best. He had a backup plan, one that everyone wanted to avoid if possible, because retrieving Elizabeth would be dangerous. Theoretically, she should have the replicator knowledge to build a zero point module, but it was an extreme gamble, one that made Todd look like a good option. The IOA's commitment to the Wraith retrovirus also depended on Todd's future cooperation. The smug bastard knew it, too.

John went to Todd's cell, where he was already shackled for transport with the team of marines selected for the mission. They beamed aboard directly to the hangar bay. John shot Todd a useless glare, and he smirked as John left him there under guard, and headed for the bridge. He wanted to watch their departure — he never got tired of that — even though the trip to Pegasus was supposed to take only an instant.

Rodney was at the second navigation station, Radek leaning over his shoulder as they performed a last triple check. Teyla and Ronon were already there, the two of them had ridden up on the jumpers with Radek and Rodney.

John almost wished that they were going to Pegasus through regular hyperspace; it would give him a little down time to just hang out with Rodney, with Teyla and Ronon before they disappeared. The opportunities had been scarce for a very long time.

When Caldwell acknowledged his arrival with a nod, John reported, "Colonel, the prisoner's secured."

"Thank you, Colonel," Caldwell acknowledged. "Dr. McKay, what's the status on the wormhole drive?"

"We're as ready as we're going to get."

"Stargate command, the Daedalus is prepared to leave orbit."

General Landry replied,Copy that, Colonel. You have a go.

"Thank you, sir." Caldwell snapped off the comm link. "Major Marks, take us out of the solar system, sublight only."

This was a risky proposition. The ship might explode when the wormhole drive was engaged, taking with it two-thirds of Atlantis' command, both of her top scientists, a fair number of ATA-enabled scientists and the Coalition's future stars. All of which they could ill afford to lose, but the potential reward was worth it.

It was a measure of how high both John and Atlantis' star had risen, boosted by the huge effort to prevent the Wraith Hive from completing its ultimate goal, that they'd persuaded command to authorize the plan and their presence aboard. John thought it was nice to be appreciated, and Rodney had assured him that the chances of the new protocol blowing them up were less than thirty percent. There had been days in Pegasus when getting to bed alive had had those odds.

Jupiter slowly filled the viewscreen, then it was gone in a blink as they headed out to open space.

"Passing the solar system bow shock boundary, Colonel," Marks reported.

"Thank you, Major. Dr McKay," Caldwell nodded at Rodney.

"Here goes nothing." Rodney stabbed a button.

The Daedalus reappeared at the edge of the Pegasus Galaxy.

Rodney grinned when John drawled, "That was pretty anti-climatic."

"Good job, Doctors. Marks, set a course for the nearest gate. Colonel Sheppard, prepare your teams for departure."

Radek stayed on the bridge; his part of the mission would come later. John, Rodney, Teyla and Ronon went down to the hangar bay.

Kusanagi, Simpson and Lieutenant Miller were waiting with Captain Selig, Lieutenant Abramowicz, and Corporals White and Estevez, the Marines guarding Todd. Another team of ATA enabled Marines stood by to accompany Rodney's scientists. Two puddle jumpers were packed and ready to go.

"So, this is it for a while," John said as he tipped his head down towards Teyla. "Gonna miss you. Got everything you need?"

Teyla reassured him, "I believe we are well prepared, John. I shall miss you, too, but we will see you in Atlantis soon."

John wished that he could be as optimistic as Teyla sounded. "Good luck." Teyla squeezed his shoulder, and gave him an encouraging smile as she focused her attention on Rodney.

Of course she was excited, she was going home to her family, and their future was bright, full of promise and plans. John turned to Ronon. "Take care, Chewie."

"You too." Ronon slapped him on the shoulder, grinned when John had to take a step to keep from falling over.

John nodded and Lieutenant Miller took the pilot seat in one of the jumpers. Teyla and Ronon followed the scientists, but Rodney hung back. "Look, we need to talk when this is over, it's important, but not, um, mission related, so don't do anything rash."

He regularly found Rodney staring at him, as if he was trying to solve a puzzle. John thought that maybe Rodney had caught the clue bus, and maybe he was tired of riding around in it, ready to get off. He thought that was hilariously inappropriate pun, and John didn't even try to hide his grin. "Me, do something rash?"

"Yes. Stop that, you look like a demented hedgehog. Just make sure you come back, preferably not in pieces, or pierced with holes."

"Yeah, you too. Be careful, and don't let Harmony talk you into marrying her on the rebound." Future conversations about unnamed topics aside, scientific missions were the ones where the worst disasters happened, and John was seriously concerned that Rodney was going out there without him, the team, to watch his back, but they had tight schedule and he trusted his men to do their job. The Daedalus could be there in hours, if necessary.

Rodney grimaced, "Very funny, Colonel. Don't let Todd pull one over on you, either."

John shrugged. "Not sure I have any choice. See you soon."

Teyla waved one last time as she closed the hatch behind Rodney.

John pushed the interesting speculations aside, and got his head back in the game. "Todd, you're up. Where are we going?"

~*~

Miller landed the jumper next to the encampment on New Athos, and everyone pitched in to unload the crates and supplies Teyla and Ronon would need for their mission, along with extra supplies for the Athosians. It would be months before Rodney saw them again, if they all managed to put their respective pieces together, if John was able to procure the zero point modules and chair.

"You'll be careful, right?"

"Of course, Rodney." Teyla smiled warmly.

"I know, you were here 'long before we met.'"

"Don't get your panties in a twist, McKay. Just go do what you've gotta do. We'll see you later."

Rodney gave Ronon a flat look. "First off —"

Teyla stopped the bickering with a quelling look at Ronon and a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Rodney, go. We'll be 'fine.'"

"Uh. Right. Later."

Rodney wasn't worried about his mission; he had a high degree of certainty that Harmony still worshiped the ground he walked on, and would grant him permission to harvest 'the beast' and take the baby drones back to Earth.

Of all the teams, he thought he had the the most clearly defined mission. John's first task worried him; John was out there alone with Todd. In Rodney's estimation, a handful of marines barely counted as back up, and hopefully he'd provided enough incentive to get John back to the Daedalus unscathed.

~*~

The sun was setting when Teyla and Ronon gated to Latira, and walked into the distant village. It was difficult to leave Torren and Kanaan behind, but this was necessary, and she and Ronon would soon return to New Athos.

Latira was similar to thousands of other settlements they'd visited in their travels through the galaxy. Prosperous enough to survive, but not large enough to attract the undue attention of the Wraith. Nearly stagnant, as if they'd almost lost the will, or vision, to become more.

Kelore was well known, and it wasn't difficult to get directions to find him. He was in the tavern, at a table with several other men. When he saw them come through the door, his companions scattered with a gesture from him.

"I am surprised to see you," Kelore said by way of greeting.

"Thought we were lying to you?" Ronon asked, danger lurking in his voice.

"No, at the time, I believed your Mr. Woolsey. But, tidings of the Lanteans have been scarce of late, and it is said that even their closest allies cannot reach the city's gate."

"The last months have been difficult," Teyla said. "The city has been taken from our galaxy, though I believe that it will soon return."

"Taken? How? And by what right did they have to do such a thing?"

Ronon growled, "The same right that we all take — necessity."

"Ronon, please. Kelore, had they not used Atlantis to defend their home from the Wraith, any advantages offered to us by the Lantean expedition would've been lost. Mr. Woolsey, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay, and their superiors, are all very committed to returning the city and honoring their vow to you."

"You truly believe this?"

"Yes, but we are not lost without Atlantis, Kelore. I have a proposition to offer the Coalition."

"What is it?"

"We were recently allowed to explore their world at length. It wasn't so long ago that they were very much the same as we are. Much of their world still is."

Kelore snorted with disbelief.

"No, I have seen with my own eyes what can be accomplished without the Wraith in the space of a single hibernation, even in our own galaxy; Genea, Sateda, Hoff — even Olesia."

"Wraith collaborators," Kelore spat.

"Yes, but soon, we will have the opportunity just as they did, to thrive without threat of culling. I have also seen what will happen if we do not have a common goal." Teyla gave him a meaningful look, and Kelore had the good sense to squirm under her disapproval. Humans should not fight one another, it made them weak.

"The Wraith are not gone, Teyla."

"They are greatly weakened and we know that they can be fought. We have allowed the Wraith to separate us, tear us apart. With our combined strengths, we have the resources to become greater than any of us has ever imagined."

~*~

Unsurprisingly, the gate address that Todd gave him was a desert world, and yet another Wraith outpost was marked in red on the HUD. John gave Todd a raised eyebrow, "How many of these hideouts do you have, anyway?"

Todd bared his teeth in a grin. "Enough."

John figured that one way or another, after today this one wouldn't be here, either. He landed a few feet away from the door. Abramowicz lowered the hatch, while Selig, White and Estevez covered Todd.

"After you," John said as he shrugged on a backpack, and snapped the P90 onto the tether. "Anyone else here?"

"All that knew of this place were aboard the Hive you destroyed."

John couldn't help the smirk. Ronon had a point; dead Wraith were just as good, if not better, than converted Wraith. John cloaked the jumper with the remote, and was on high alert as Todd meekly led them through the outpost. It was weird, and he expected things to go sideways pretty damn quick. They always did when Todd was involved.

Todd paused at a door, and John ordered the four marines to wait outside.

There were two ratty looking bags, and Todd motioned John to them. "See for yourself, John Sheppard."

John carefully lifted the flap on one, then the other. Five zero point modules in total.

"There are no more, Sheppard. Use them wisely."

"Yeah." John knelt down and put one of them into his backpack. He stood, then picked up the two bags. "Nice doin' business with you."

"Have you forgotten something, Sheppard?" Todd raised his still-chained hands.

"Selig, Estevez!"

"Sir?" Selig stepped into the room.

"Take those off, and cover him. He's staying here."

John nodded and left. White and Abramowicz took the lead, Selig and Estevez trotting behind him to catch up.

He heard the whine of a wraith stunner, and turned to see Selig go down, Estevez crouched over him, weapons hot. Abramowicz grabbed John by the arm and shoved him back, "Sir, we'll take care of this. White, cover him, make sure he gets out of here!"

White barked, "Yes, sir!" and took over, pulling John along as they threaded their way to the exit. John hated being 'the package', but Abramowicz was right; the unwieldy bags made his P90 difficult to use, and he had to get these zero point modules back to the Daedalus. Had to be there to see the fruition of the plan.

The Wraith guards at the outpost entrance were mowed down by White as John pelted towards the jumper and a few potshots from above rained down. John berated himself as he dumped his load behind the pilots seat and checked the HUD for what was firing at them. "Gee, what a surprise," a Wraith cruiser was in orbit, so either Todd had another ship, or one of his competitors had been watching the place. Either scenario was just as likely as the other, but John suspected that Todd was responsible. It was always Todd's fault.

White stood on the ramp and whistled loudly and a few moments later Abramowicz and Estevez dragged the unconscious Selig up the ramp.

John was in the air before the ramp was closed. The good news was the gate was inactive. He paused just outside the splash zone, and called back, "What's the status back there?"

"Captain Selig's coming out of it, sir, we're good."

John dialed up a backup gate; he didn't want to lead the Wraith to the Daedalus. He went through two more gates for good measure, as he considered his options.

He could go directly back to the Daedalus, and trust that the jumper wouldn't be scanned, or if it was scanned, trust that Caldwell wouldn't confront him about the unaccounted for ZPM when everything came out in the wash.

Or he could trust the marines in the back to keep a pitstop to themselves; they were his guys, not just some random squad. Todd might have his suspicions, he'd seen John hide the device away, but any claim Todd made would be viewed extreme prejudice.

The proposed Gamma site was uninhabited, and there were some ruins near the gate that would be perfect to hide the power module. It would still be there even if John was cashiered out for his actions. He'd find some way to let Rodney know where it was, if Atlantis came back without him.

John finally punched in the address to the Gamma site. He landed outside the ruins and left the ship cloaked.

Selig was still out of it. John told Abramowicz, "There's something I need to check on here, Lieutenant," as he hefted his backpack.

Lieutenant Abramowicz nodded. "Yes, sir. White, Estevez, stay with Captain Selig."

They jogged to the ruins, and Abramowicz stayed outside to cover the door. John stuffed the zero point module in a gutted console, and managed to get the faceplate back on. At a glance, it didn't look too bad, and anyone looking around would have to remember that it hadn't been left that way.

Abramowicz asked, "All done, sir?"

"Yeah. Let's go."

He tapped the comm panel as he exited the gate. "Daedalus, this is Sheppard. I'm inbound with ZPMs."

"Good to hear, Colonel. You're sure that's all of them?"

He hated like friendly fire to lie to Caldwell, but he knew that sooner than later, he'd need an ace up his sleeve and it was worth it to take the off chance that he might someday face the consequences for his actions. "I believed him when he said that was the last of them." Todd was a pretty good scapegoat — deserved it for the stunt he pulled at the outpost.

"Very well. The hangar bay is open."

Selig was sent to the ship's infirmary, White went with the bags of zero point modules to a secure holding. John waited while the crew loaded up the supplies he needed for his next stop. White returned a few minutes later, escorting Radek with his equipment.

John immediately took off again, dialing the gate to go see his old buddy Tavius at the Tower, and do a little horse trading.

~*~

Harmony had certainly grown up in the few short years since he'd seen her last. Rodney didn't know if it was merely that she'd been on the brink of turning into a woman, or if some weird evolutionary process was at work, that the Pegasus population seemed skip being teenagers and go immediately to adulthood.

He introduced his team, and assured her they all had the gene, and they were safe enough. Harmony's fawning attitude had faded, too, though she was still warm and welcoming, and enthusiastically agreed to his proposition. He wanted to tame the 'Beast', and explore the Temple of Larris.

Of course that meant that she was coming with them, because as a scientist, he knew empirical evidence when he saw it. John had taken away her symbolic link to her inheritance; John was reviled. Rodney wasn't willing to retest his theorem.

Harmony sat in the co-pilot seat and offered Lieutenant Miller directions, until the jumper landed in the clearing, where Miller broke a few tree branches in the process.

Fortunately, she wasn't required to stay after the facility had been initiated with her key. Miller returned her and her annoying retinue to the castle, while Rodney and his team got to work.

~*~

John's first visit to the Tower had also been his last, though he'd read the follow up reports of the teams sent to assist. By all accounts Mara had had a favorable influence on Tavius, and while it wasn't perfect, the villagers were keeping more of their appreciably increased harvest. Sometimes revolution took a while to foment.

He landed at the village first, to see for himself the state of affairs. After Atlantis returned he wouldn't have very many opportunities to revisit the hundreds of planets the team had contacted over the last five years, though other teams would spread the news about the Coalition.

Eldred and Petra both looked happy and well-fed, and after they confirmed the reports, John left Estevez on guard at the jumper outside the old city and went to find Tavius. Radek, Abramowicz and White trailed in after him.

Tavius sat in the dead chair and John greeted him, "Lord Protector." He could offer them the extra ZPM, but he had to take the chair, if they were going to get back to Pegasus to finish off the Wraith.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," Tavius said with a faint sneer. "We did not expect to see you again. We've been unable to dial your gate."

"Sorry about that. Had Wraith problems, needed to relocate temporarily, but things should be back to normal soon." John gave him a friendly smile. He didn't like doing this, but he had to count on Tavius' ignorance. "I remembered that your chair stopped working, and since I was in the neighborhood, thought I'd stop in and see if there was anything we could do about that." He knew it was only a lack of power, but it wouldn't do to remind Tavius.

Tavius shrugged as if it was unimportant. "Where is Dr. McKay?"

"He's currently assigned to another project," John urged Radek forward with a glance that said make it look good, "but Dr. Zelenka is our expert in problems like this."

"Very well." Tavius stepped away from the chair, and Radek approached it, pulling out his laptop and cables.

John walked away with Tavius, "Listen, I have some information that might be beneficial to you..."

~*~

The second day of discussions with Kelore passed into night. Kelore had nodded and paged through the various books and photos as he listened; Teyla had chosen her material wisely.

The lamps in the tavern flickered around them, and the innkeeper had gone to bed, leaving a pitcher of beer on the table. She thought that Kelore had been convinced that the Coalition could do this, that the plan was feasible. "Can I depend upon your support with the Coalition?"

"Yes. I will send a messenger through the gate with a request to meet in two days time."

"Thank you, Kelore. You will not regret this."

~*~

There wasn't too much to do while Tavius went off to consult his advisors. John left Abramowicz and White to watch over Radek while he was working on 'repairing' the chair, and went out to check on Estevez.

Mara waylaid him before he got outside. "Colonel, I heard you had come to visit."

John smiled and asked, "How are you, Mara?"

She stepped in close, her hand on his shoulder as she leaned in and whispered, "I have missed you."

Yeah, he'd slept with her, but finding out that she'd been ordered to seduce him as part of a succession plan had been an ugly wake up call. And there was Rodney to consider — maybe, if Rodney wanted to talk about what he suspected was their 'thing', sleeping with random women while on a mission would certainly guarantee that it would never happen. John pulled away, enough for her hand to fall, and said gently, "Mara, I realize that your choice of partners is fairly limited, but I'm not looking for a rematch here."

She sighed, and patted his his cheek. "You were ill-used and I'm sorry for that. I only wanted to make amends, without subterfuge."

The way he was using Tavius to get the chair was disgraceful, but Mara had influence, and they had to have that chair. "I appreciate the offer, I really do, but if you want to make amends, there is something that you could do for me." He laid out what he needed, as there was quite the rivalry between the siblings. "If you could put in a good word with Tavius, I would appreciate it."

Mara seemed cooperative, if disappointed that he wasn't willing to engage in a roll in the sack, and John left the building with slightly higher expectations of a favorable conclusion to the mission.

Estevez was fine. John hung out with him for a while, then gathered up a handful of MRE's and went back to the chair.

It was a couple of hours of wandering back and forth as John waited for Tavius to complete his deliberations.

Mara was waiting for him next to the chair when he completed his last circuit. "The throne is yours in exchange for the trade goods."

"Thank you, Mara."

"It had become a sore reminder. We are well-rid of it." She gave him a hopeful look, and added, "Is there any thing else you require?"

John hadn't changed his mind in the last few hours, and he was already a conniving bastard, he might as well go for the touchdown. "If you don't mind, Dr. Zelenka here has an interest in the catacombs. He's kind of a collector."

Mara gave him a weak smile. "I do not understand your unnatural fascination with them. If that is what you want, then by all means." She turned sharply and and left the throne room without a backward glance.

Conniving bastard. He should wear a sign around his neck.

The supplies they'd brought were taken away, the chair was moved to the jumper, and John's part in the mission was complete. He took Radek down to the buried part of the city, and let him forage for whatever he wanted, which was mostly irreplaceable control crystals from equipment, consoles and doors. They went back down and over again, until every box, bag and container was crammed full of crystals and miscellaneous equipment was packed in tight around the chair.

He asked, "We done here?"

Radek gave him a droll smile. "I believe we have everything we came for, Colonel."

"Good enough." Abramowicz, White and Estevez clambered into the front cabin with John, and Radek sat in the chair with a smirk.

Once the jumper was was unloaded on the Daedalus, John took off to check on Rodney. He was pretty sure that Harmony was still mad at him, and he didn't want to jeopardize Rodney's mission, so he stayed on his side of the gate for a radio check. "McKay, this is Sheppard. You guys doing okay?"

"We're fine. May I assume that since you're lolly-gagging around on the radio that you were successful?"

"Safe and sound. Both targets, and more, acquired and onboard."

"Good. Now get out of here so I can do the same."

"Nice to know I'm loved," John said lightly. "I'll check in tomorrow."

~*~

It took several days to capture and contain the swarm of the little drones. No one had come out of that adventure unscathed, but Simpson had the worst injury, a deep gash where she'd been sideswiped in the leg. When she refused to be evacuated, Kusanagi had stitched her wound, and Rodney set her to working on cracking the database as they continued to round up the dronelets.

He knew that the direct manufacture of drones was probably out of their reach, but if his theory was correct — and it usually was — these weren't only experimental drones, but power starved 'baby' drones, that would reach their full potential when given access to enough power.

If even if John hadn't gotten the zero point modules, Rodney's mission would still be important; the data and research that had been left behind here could be critically important to future study and extrapolations. He and Radek proved that with the wormhole drive.

When the Ancient lab had been scavenged for every scrap of information, and the dronelets were packed and ready to go, Rodney stopped at the castle to have a word with Harmony.

Rodney had been employed by political entities his entire career, and anyone with a doctoral degree knew how to work the system. He gave her the gate address to Latira, and told her in an offhand way that she might want to get in touch with Kelore, if she wanted, that the Coalition would most certainly benefit from her invaluable insights and wisdom.

"And what of the Beast?"

"I was able to capture it, and would like to take it with me. For the safety of your people."

"Then that shall be your reward. Thank you again, Dr. McKay."

Rodney tamped down on the urge to smirk, and nodded. "No, thank you, your Highness." The real reward was the knowledge that with a ZedPM, the Temple of Larris would be capable of producing more dronelets and powering the failed containment field.

When they landed in the hangar bay, John was waiting for them. He looked appalled at what Rodney considered 'we're fine', but they had everything they came for.

There was just enough power left in the borrowed ZPM, and within minutes, they were back in near Earth orbit.

 

6.

The chair installation had gone fairly well, and the redesigned interface for the SGC's ZedPM was far more efficient than his first effort, so Rodney returned to Atlantis to oversee the final repairs, while Bill Lee waited for the drone system to be brought up from Antarctica.

When Rodney checked in, Chuck handed him a radio and said, "Colonel Sheppard is in the city, and would like you to contact him."

Rodney put the radio on and headed towards a cup of coffee. "Sheppard, I'm back. What did you need?"

"Where are you?"

"Mess hall." The city wasn't under fire, and everything he needed to do would still be there tomorrow. The planned 'conversation' had been put off for weeks, due to no time and partially because he was horribly afraid that he'd misjudged John's innocuous remarks. "You free for dinner?"

"Yep, I'll meet you there."

Throughout dinner, Rodney surreptitiously watched John. He'd seen John flirt for years, and it was gratifying to know that he hadn't misjudged the signals. John inviting him for a nightcap wasn't unusual, but it was certainly encouraging.

They were splayed comfortably on the balcony outside John's quarters. Rodney had moved upwind when the cigar was lit, but the alcohol had mellowed him enough that that he didn't bitch about lung cancer.

An elbow jabbed him in the arm and he nearly spilled his drink. 'Hey!"

"So, I might've managed to get one more ZPM that I didn't bring back."

"Really? Where is it? Why didn't you tell me?"

"You know that old adage, absolute power, etcetera? Just thought it prudent to keep it where we could get at it, rather than going begging later. It's at the alternate Gamma site, the ones with the ruins. I hid it inside a console."

"Who else knows about it?"

"Just us, for now. Possibly Abramowicz. I'd like to tell Lorne and Zelenka, too."

"It would be nice to have a full complement, but since we're not using the wormhole drive to get home, we should have a fifty percent power reserve when we get there."

"I know, but how many times have we said that if we had had just one more ZPM, we'd be fine?"

"More times than I care to recall," Rodney grimaced. "The drone lab — "

"I was considering that. Depends on whether or not Dr. Horne can fix the Wraith retrovirus. If we don't have to shoot 'em, all the better."

Rodney had met Commander Doctor Jerome Horne, the new CMO, twice. He'd been recruited to the SGC from the Navy some years ago, he had the ATA gene, and he was a former pilot. He was quiet, but determined to finish what Jennifer had started. Horne had even offered another wacky solution, reprogramming the medical nanites to cure the 'cancer' the retrovirus caused. Yeah, he was going to fit in just fine. "Either way, I think the Wraith's days are definitely numbered."

"Yep." John took another puff of his cigar, blew a few smoke rings, then grinned. "You think anyone at the IOA caught the reference to another five year mission?"

Rodney snorted Scotch through his nose."Gah, stop!" When he'd finished coughing, and only his eyes were watering, he shook his head. "I doubt it."

"Too bad." John raised his glass, and said. "To the next five years."

He clinked his glass against John's, "May they be as perilous and horrific as the last five," and downed the last of it.

John sat up straight, "What?"

"You think I want to jinx us?"

"Oh, right. Right. The next horrible, awful, no good five years." John downed the rest of his drink and set it aside.

"About that," Rodney started,then he stopped to gather up the courage, because this was the fulcrum point, everything tipped in one direction or another from here.

John was smirking, more smug than usual. He said casually, "You wanted to talk?"

"Yes. What Jennifer said, and then you — I've some to the realization that perhaps I need to realign my objectives based on her assessment."

"Rodney, no," John said angrily. "She's gone and you're still trying to live up to her expectations. That's bullshit."

"Actually, no. Not at all. I see where you might get that impression, but it's... I'm just being realistic. I know what's important, and that's Atlantis, and for me, Atlantis is inextricably tied to, well. You, and not just professionally as the person that saves my ass on a regular basis."

"Yeah. And uhm, same to you, you know?"

Rodney grinned and said, "Way to have a heart to heart, John. So, I wasn't wrong?"

"You're not wrong," John rasped out.

"Okay. Good."

 

5.

Atlantis was going back to Pegasus with two full zero point modules and the Daedalus was semi-permanently assigned to the Pegasus galaxy. With the chair and a ZPM installed at the SGC, and the 'last' ZPM installed on the Daedalus, all of the conditions for their departure had been met. The Apollo's repairs were complete, and though the Sun Tzu would take longer to get back into fighting shape, with the Hammond and Odyssey, they had four ships of the line in the Milky Way, and an unnamed fifth was already under construction.

Tracey Melendez, the new Logistics Warrant officer, was hard at work inventorying the supplies that the Daedalus was beaming down. The departure date was set and they had four weeks to finalize Atlantis' repair and get the new personnel assigned and aboard.

The Daedalus beamed them over in batches every three days, half military units and half science, with a smattering of civilians for support positions. Richard got an assistant, Hilary Gaines, a young man with the same penchant for suits, though he favored dorky bow ties. John and Lieutenant Colonel-elect Lorne got an aide de camp, Captain Philip Lovetta, who barely looked old enough to shave, but after a few days, they decided they weren't going to toss Phil off a balcony.

Every day was spent in orientation with the newcomers, assigning quarters and running them through safety drills. Dr. Horne and his med staff were busy doing baseline physicals and implanting subcutaneous transponders. The returning military were assigned the task of starting the new civilians and scientists on their firearms and personal defense skills training, and running refresher courses for those who were returning.

Tower two was opened up for residential units, along with a second dining hall that Chief Warrant Officer Melendez deemed necessary for the expanded population. She was also in charge of the AAFES base exchange in one of the towers, with the stuff they used to have to order in bulk and pray the Daedalus had enough cargo space to carry: magazines, books, movies, tampons, cosmetics, shampoo, beer, snacks, clothing. What they didn't have in stock, could be ordered, same as before, but now the delivery could also be via the gate with the new monthly mail dial in, though the Daedalus would still make the semi-annual round trip for bulk restocking. The clerk was already on duty, taking last minute orders before they left earth.

John was going to miss the black market trading, the rotgut hooch from the various stills, and the sense of community created by isolation. This wasn't going to be the same Atlantis, but the changes also brought regular deliveries of armaments and ammunition, and an actual motor pool with a half-dozen FREDs, ATVs, trailers, and a fleet of UAVs.

He'd known that the Goa'uld and Ori had taken a lot of resources to fight, John just hadn't thought too much about what the city hadn't been getting because of those wars.

No more. Along with the fact that superior officers could walk through the gate with the mail, they had human resources officers, both IOA and military. A Field Service Support Group assigned to support the Coalition knocked around the city and the equipment specifically requested in Teyla's proposal would be carried to Pegasus on board the Daedalus. A cadre of specialists, librarians and teachers would be the last to board the city as passengers.

John really wanted Teyla and Ronon back in the city, to see the changes they had helped to bring about. This was as much their fault — or victory, depending on his mood — as it was his, or anyone else's.

Elizabeth would've loved it.

~*~

The IOA and SGC insisted that all department heads take a vacation during the roll up to departure. Rodney had plans to visit Jeannie, and John was going to go back east to visit his brother Dave after Evan and Radek returned. The departure schedule left them in the Mountain in the early afternoon with scheduled flights the next morning.

Given the last couple of times they'd managed to get out together, John had selected the most sleazy venues possible, Rodney decided that it was up to him to interrupt the pattern.

They didn't need to go on a frenzied shopping spree, unlike past visits to Earth. Rodney disliked going to movie theaters, and most restaurants tried to kill him. An evening spent on Atlantis was fairly standard practice, though in the future they could return to Earth as necessary.

For all that Rodney was a genius, he panicked slightly as he eliminated each date-type option, until he realized that John probably didn't require the usual routine of flowers, dinner, etc. There was also the early morning flight to consider, and neither of them would relish the idea of flying hungover. Also there was John's preferred haunts, and while John wouldn't necessarily hate the idea of an expensive restaurant, it didn't seem to be his thing.

He checked sports schedules and thankfully none of the Denver teams were playing in town that night. Rodney would've done it, but it wasn't in his top ten fun things to do. Hmm, fun things. A quick search later he hit on the perfect plan — fun, food and and no dressing up, and it fit in their allotted time. They'd be far enough away from the Springs that running into random people from the Mountain was unlikely. Just two guys out for a little entertainment. A car and driver was next, even though a hangover was not on his agenda, nor did he want to spend his vacation in jail for a DUI.

Rodney swung by John's room. The door was open, and John was lying on the bed, magazine in hand. "Hey. You want to get out of here?"

"Sure. What did you have in mind?"

"Dave & Busters in Denver. I've got a car picking us up in an hour."

John dropped the magazine and gave him a soft smile, "Got it all planned out, huh?"

Rodney grinned and rocked up on his toes a little. "Yes. We'll be back early, just in case."

"Cool." John retrieved a pair of jeans and a polo out of his duffle, then stripped out of his shirt.

Rodney stepped back and closed the door, because while John might not care if he flashed anyone walking past the door, Rodney did.

The best part about the car and driver was that neither one would be distracted by driving. It wasn't a limousine with smoked glass shutter between them and the driver, nor was it military.

It was easy to talk with John, and it was all right if the conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence.

Rodney counted the evening a complete success. The food was average, but it was hard to ruin a hamburger and fries. John naturally excelled at the NASCAR simulators, but Rodney had his fair share of wins, too, the most surprising was skee ball. No one cared or looked askance at them holding hands or sharing a rare kiss. John looked pretty amused by that and Rodney felt perfectly Victorian.

On the return trip, they made ridiculous plans to import arcade games to Atlantis. John especially wanted CarismaTM, or the Ferrari F355 DLXTM but Rodney was more partial to Star Wars Pod RacerTM.

It was peculiar feeling when they arrived back at Cheyenne. They'd spent months and months barely seeing one another, but Rodney was going to miss John for the next week. It was a little early yet to suggest a shared vacation, but he felt certain that would eventually be the standard, rather than the exception.

 

4.

The city was ready. Everyone who was going with them was on board. After Rodney declared the ZedPM and chair calibrations that Radek completed in his absence were perfect, there wasn't anything to do until liftoff.

The last few hours were tense. Atlantis had already entered her own blackout in advance of take-off. Rodney vaguely felt bad that the west coast was going to suffer a complete black out around midnight, but it had been arranged to provide a distraction from their departure. Rodney suspected that this was the final straw, and disclosure of the program would follow shortly on the heels of their departure. They wouldn't be immune from the effects, or out of reach, but hopefully they would be too busy to be bothered.

The sunset over the Golden Gate bridge was particularly beautiful, and Rodney was at their usual spot on the edge of the pier when John sat down next to him.

Rodney asked, "Hmm. I wonder what Teyla and Ronon are doing?"

"Working their asses off. We've got the easy part — provide a handful of consultants and engineers, talk to people. Get rid of the Wraith," John said with a wry smile.

Rodney snickered. "Easy. While they build themselves an empire."

"It's gonna be interesting."

"Very."

"How's Jeannie and the family?"

"The same as always. Jeannie was disappointed with Jennifer, but she was remarkably sympathetic. You know, it's odd knowing that we're not going to be stranded in another galaxy, that I can just pop through the gate for a short visit. Kaleb's not very happy with the converse of that. How was your trip back east?"

"Dave is very Dave-like. We're getting there, though. It's nice to finally get to know him again."

"True." Rodney let the conversation lapse as the sun dipped and fell beyond the horizon.

Eventually John stood, and offered a hand to Rodney. "Come on. I want to get something to eat before I put my butt in the chair."

~*~

When the lights began to blink out from San Diego to Seattle, Caldwell relayed the message, "Atlantis, you have a go."

Rodney checked three laptops and two consoles, then announced to the control room, "All systems are green."

From the power room, Radek confirmed, "The ZPMs are online and functioning. We have full power."

John said over the radio, "I'm ready."

"You remember where you're going, Colonel?"

"Yes, Rodney, course is laid in." John sniped back.

Richard gave the order, "Take us out, Colonel."

"Copy that, firing the launch thrusters."

The city shook for a brief moment as it rose into the air. Rodney monitored their trajectory over the Pacific. "We're at fifty-five hundred meters," Rodney said as he activated a few more controls. "Switching from cloak to shield."

Radek returned to the control room and took over one of Rodney's consoles. Atlantis powered through the last of Earth's atmosphere, then past the moon's orbit.

John murmured quietly, "Initiating stardrive."

Atlantis shot through the hyperspace window, with the Daedalus hot on her heels.

"That's it, folks. We're on our way home."

 

3.

John missed Teyla and Ronon, but he'd see them soon enough. Finally getting to regularly spend some time with Rodney again was all he could ask for, or receive. In between staff meetings, planning and training sessions, and the time spent in the chair so Rodney could play with the city's systems in flight, John thought a lot about Rodney.

It was pretty amusing how slowly Rodney was taking their 'thing'. Sure, it was foreign territory for John, but like any mission, he'd done his due diligence back on Earth. It wasn't as if he'd never seen a cock before; it was pretty hard to miss in any porn, and he had one himself. He'd be pissed off that Rodney was treating him like a blushing virgin, except he'd seen Rodney's seduction technique in action — twice. It was just the way that Rodney operated in this particular arena.

What surprised him most, was that he liked the low pressure approach. Rodney didn't just see the potential in him, he didn't expect him to radically alter himself to suit expectations, other than what Rodney perceived as his sheer disregard for his own safety, but John was pretty willing to change that on his own.

It was amusing that Rodney would think of a break up in terms of exit polls. John had had one of those himself, and he hadn't really required or appreciated the extensive listing of his deficiencies as a spouse; he'd already been well aware of them.

Maybe that was the key. Nancy had been disappointed that John hadn't wanted to change for her. Rodney was fully aware of John's character flaws, and liked him anyway.

In the meantime, he kind of enjoyed being the object of Rodney's attentions. They were both busy — everyone was gearing up to arrival — but there was time for shared meals, a game of chess, or visiting the makeshift lounge, where Rodney had rolled his eyes at the 'Ten Forward' sign someone had tacked up beside the door.

John scoped out a table on the balcony while Rodney stopped at the bar for a pair of beers. Being in hyperspace with only the shield between him and the universe was a mesmeric psychedelic chiaroscuro, and John couldn't resist the allure. There were folks that didn't like it and avoided leaving the towers, but Rodney had denounced their idiocy; being in a building wouldn't protect them if the shield failed. John snickered at just how badly that had failed to reassure people.

He was just as glad that other people felt that way, because it left them alone out on the balcony to flirt or talk in peace.

Rodney sat down and plunked a bottle in front of him.

John took a drink, as he thought about how to tell Rodney that he was all the way in, and there wasn't going to be any freaking out.

"I told you that I ran into Mara, right?"

Rodney stiffened slightly and gave him a narrow look. "You mentioned that."

All those years John had thought Rodney was jealous, but no; this was definitely the Jealous McKay in his natural habitat. "I was thinking of you when I turned her down. You know. For a hook up."

"But we hadn't really talked... you had dropped a few hints, though."

"What can I say? I'm hopeful kind of guy."

Rodney took a drink and said evenly, "You don't have any problems being manipulative."

That wasn't where he thought this conversation was going to go. He'd been pretty blunt in his report about what he'd done to get the chair, and he was used to Rodney taking conversational left turns. John nodded slowly. "Yeah, actually I do. I just learned from the best."

"Your father?"

"And my mother." John shrugged. "Took me a while to realize I was too, once I was out of the house. You would've hated me on sight when I was in flight school."

"Cocky son of bitch?"

John gave him a wry smile. "That would be a very nice way of saying it."

~*~

The caesura of two weeks in hyperspace ended with Atlantis' second arrival on M35-117. The landing was slightly less like a collision than the first one, but Rodney was resigned that landing a flying city was never going to be 'just kissing'.

The shield was dropped, the stargate recalibrated and the SGC was dialed to report their safe arrival. Offworld teams were geared up and sent through the gate to begin visiting the long list of allies with the news of their return. The Field Service Support Group was waiting for confirmation from Teyla before they deployed, so John had ordered a MALP through the gate to New Athos when Evan reported the Athosians were fine, and they expected Teyla and Ronon to return in a few days, before gating off to his next destination.

John stayed busy in the control room fielding check-ins from the teams. Caldwell contacted them three days later, with confirmation that a gate and DHD had been secured, and he was headed to Sateda.

Later the same day, there was an unscheduled dial in from New Athos.

"MALP telemetry activated, forwarding to you, Colonel Sheppard."

The screen blinked on, and Teyla and Ronon were both crowded into the camera. "Hello, John."

Richard joined him in the control room, as John said, "Good to see you guys. Coming through?"

Teyla smiled. "Mr. Woolsey, I'm pleased to report that we have been very successful so far."

"That's excellent news. Perhaps the Colonel would appreciate the opportunity to visit you for a day or so, first."

He hadn't realized that Richard knew him well enough to recognize that he had itchy feet. John nodded at Richard. "Yeah, we'll be there soon."

"We look forward to it." Teyla cut the camera and the gate shut down.

"Whenever you're ready, Colonel."

John took off to rousting Rodney out of the lab and calling for Dr. Horne to meet them at the locker room.

It had become something of a tradition to get the CMO's feet wet with a trip to visit the Athosians, though John wasn't too worried about Horne; he'd been offworld several times in his tenure at the SGC, and he was military.

He and Rodney were already geared up by the time Horne arrived at the locker room, with two heavy bags. "Rodney, can you make sure the Doc is all set? I'll get the radios and meet you at the armory."

"Yes, yes, go on." Rodney waved him out and turned to Horne who was already shrugging his way into a tac vest.

Richard had already sent the requisition for the extra pair of field radios and John signed out five of them.

Rodney and Horne were at the armory strapping on their sidearms. John couldn't help the grin, and grabbed one of the medical bags. Rodney looked just as happy, and didn't even bitch about the hurried pace that he set back to the gate room.

An outgoing wormhole was already active and Richard was waiting for them on the embarkation floor. He gave John a pair of new GDOs and said, "12 hour check in, please and good luck."

"12 hours," John confirmed. He turned and asked, "You ready, Dr. Horne?"

"More than."

John stepped through the wormhole, flanked by Rodney and Horne.

"John!" Ronon tackle-hugged him, and then did the same to Rodney. John grinned as he touched his forehead to Teyla's. They held the embrace for a few minutes, just breathing in one another's space.

"It's been too long. How are you guys?" John asked as he lifted his head.

"We are doing very well." Teyla cocked her head at Horne, with a questioning look.

"Teyla, Ronon, this is Cmdr. Dr. Jerome Horne, our new chief medical officer. Doctor, this is Teyla Emmagan and Ronon Dex, the rest of my team," John paused and shot Teyla a questioning look. She nodded with a broad smile and he continued, "And the Coalition members for Sateda and Athos." So they'd done that much already.

"Very pleased to meet you both," Horne said as he shook Teyla then Ronon's hand. "I've heard a lot about you two in the last few months."

Ronon just nodded. Teyla said with a sly smile, "I look forward to having the same opportunity."

Horne chuckled. "Suppose you do. Introduce me to a few folks around here, and I'll get out of your reunion."

"They're this way." Ronon grabbed the extra pack that was hanging off of John's shoulder and Teyla pulled Rodney forward by the shoulder, though their quiet conversation didn't carry. Horne fell in on John and Ronon's six.

The walk through the forest to the settlement was beautiful. The sun shone through the tall trees and the air was cool and misty. There were a few flowers blooming here and there, and the foliage was the bright green of early spring.

"So," John said. "They gave us the Daedalus. Caldwell left for Sateda with a gate this morning, and there's a platoon of Corps engineers waiting on Atlantis for something to do."

"We could use 'em. Coalition voted to take Hoff as the capitol a while back, and we've got one building mostly cleaned up."

"That's great."

"Still a lot to do. Teyla's got people ready to reallocate the hospital and library resources from Sateda. I've got the beginnings of the Coalition militia in shape, so we can move 'em there now."

"How'd the Genii take that piece of the plan?"

"Not too happy, but Radim supported it because we might be able to rebuild their munition plants. Plus, I'm pretty sure he knows that no one trusts them — too many renegades. They're still building nukes."

John nodded. Their own foibles with the renegades aside, the Genii had run roughshod over a lot of people in the process, and they hadn't made too many friends.

"We're gonna need to go back to Olesia. See if there's anyone left. Teyla thought that would be a good place for the Judicial seat."

"They going on trial for being collaborators?"

"Nah, they've been punished."

John thought that Olesia's fate was an excellent object lesson. "Your photography equipment holding up?"

"Ran out of ink a few months ago, and the hard drive is almost full."

"I ordered a case of the ink, it's back on Atlantis."

"Good. Need to come in and back up the drive, too."

"Looking forward to that."

The path through the trees opened upon the decidedly smaller settlement in a clearing. Halling, Kanaan and Torren were at the table in the center of the tents. Teyla introduced Dr. Horne, and Halling went to round up the rest of the survivors in camp.

The number of people that appeared for a check up was smaller than John remembered. He asked Halling quietly, "How many have you lost?"

Halling shook his head. "None. We few have only stayed to await your return. Now we will join the others on Hoff."

"Okay, thanks." He turned to find Torren staring at him from behind Teyla as she consulted with Dr. Horne. John gave him a little wave. Last time he'd seen the little guy, Torren had been just an infant in arms; now he was walking and talking.

John was delighted that he was going to get the opportunity to see Torren grow up, to get the chance to be Uncle John. Torren was shy for the first half hour, but he quickly warmed up to John and Rodney. John alternated between playing with TJ and swapping stories about Atlantis and the Coalition. Ronon pulled out his laptop with the various Ancient ruins he'd photographed in the last few months, and conferred with Rodney on their condition. Rodney was already mapping out potential missions to each of them, while John helped to dismantle the encampment for the move to Hoff.

As the light began to slant through the trees, John went back to the gate to get a jumper, accompanied by Teyla and TJ. "Sounds like you have everything under control."

"I have you and Atlantis to thank for that. I do not believe that six years ago, the idea would have even occurred to me, nor would I have had the courage or skill to attempt this."

"You've always been a great leader."

"Thank you, John. The experience of traveling on Earth was quite enlightening. I do not think there is any way that I can repay you for the opportunity."

John grinned. "Sure there is — come home."

"Yes. I have missed Atlantis."

They returned to Atlantis, the MALP trailing behind them. John left Teyla to report to Richard, and gave the engineers a head up that they'd be on their way to Hoff the next day to wait for the Daedalus to arrive with their equipment.

John finished preflight when Teyla joined him. "Everything all right?"

"Yes. Richard and I discussed logistics. I'm afraid that we are not as well prepared as I hoped. There are no accommodations for the civilian consultants, but I would like for them to be involved as soon as possible. It's quite a lot to juggle, but Mr. Woolsey has offered Mr. Gaines' services."

John loved Teyla's sense of understatement. "Yeah, apparently he's an organization management whiz kid." He knew Teyla wasn't a pushover of any kind, that Gaines wasn't going to waltz in and take over from her. Teyla had marshaled a handful of lieutenants, though, and John had no doubt whatsoever that Hoff would become everything that she'd envisioned.

It was early morning on Hoff, and the move was accomplished with in two trips with the jumper crammed full of tents and furniture. John saw the source of Teyla's frustration. Hoff was a disaster area; what the Wraith hadn't destroyed had since been scavenged and ransacked in the intervening four years.

 

2.

It had been many weeks since her last visit, and Teyla was looking forward to the extended stay. She didn't have the same connection that John rarely spoke of, but the city was still a relief every time she returned home.

John echoed her thoughts with a "Welcome home," called from the catwalk above the embarkation lounge.

She met him halfway up the stairs. "Thank you. Is Mr. Woolsey available?"

John checked over the radio, and nodded. "Yep."

"Please join us, you will need to hear this as well."

"All right."

Mr. Woolsey stood and shook her hand. "Good to see you again, Teyla. We definitely miss your presence. What can I do for you?" He gestured toward the chairs.

"Thank you. I would like to offer Atlantis as the host for our next meeting. As a gesture of cooperation, and to further cement our position in the Coalition."

He glanced at John and asked, "I have no objection. Colonel?"

"It's a security nightmare, but Lorne and I could work something out."

"Very well. Teyla, may I assume that you are looking for something impressive?"

John groaned, but Teyla ignored him. "Yes, Mr. Woolsey. I would like to 'rock their socks.'"

When John snickered, she gave him a raised brow and a sharp smile.

~*~

Gaines had been given free rein, and he and Teyla had put their heads together and arranged a formal reception. John regretted giving the SGC their own ZPM, because the IOA and Pentagon brass had turned out in full force, along with SG1. All of Atlantis' senior staff were in attendance as well, albeit some of them under duress.

John had known that the atrium in Tower 3 was an impressive space all on its own, but he had to admit that it was spectacular when decked out with crystal, china and silver, and a god-forsaken champagne fountain. His men were in civilian clothes like some extra-galactic Secret Service, spread out throughout the building, but he was stuck in a mess dress uniform that had been delivered his quarters with a semi-apologetic note from General O'Neill. John was jealous that Ronon was comfortable in jeans and a white shirt, as he mingled with his camera.

John knew how to work a room, had been trained from childhood to do that very thing. He would've preferred to hang out at the edge of the room with Rodney and just keep an eye on things, but that wasn't what Teyla needed. John despised the glad-handing as he circled the room, making conversation and introductions, smiling and shaking hands, all while avoiding — oh god, she'd found Vala Maldoran — Larrin. Rodney caught his eye, and threw a smirk his way.

The atrium was a bright swirl of exotic costumes, dresses and uniforms, and Teyla, with Kanaan close beside her, was at the center of it, composed and relaxed as she chatted with the constant tumult of people looking to get her attention. John was honestly pleased for her, because that was what parties like this were for, showing off and making statements.

He'd suspected that the Coalition could either be impressed or totally horrified at the excess, but as usual, Teyla had judged her target well and struck a bullseye.

Eventually he crossed Rodney's slower orbit around the room.

Rodney would look sharp in his suit, if it weren't for his nearly apoplectic red face. John took his elbow, made apologies to the nice woman in the fish scale dress, and dragged him away. He snagged two glasses of champagne and found a safe spot to hide for a few minutes.

"You all right there, buddy?" John gave him a glass, and Rodney downed it in one go.

"No, I am not all right! Did you — can you believe she. I don't want to talk about it."

"Sure." John grinned. He sipped his champagne a little slower and kept an eye out for the terrible twosome as Sam Carter drifted over. Somehow she'd managed to avoid the whole dress uniform requirement, and the black strapless affair she wore instead had Rodney transfixed.

John discreetly ogled her as he jabbed Rodney in the side with an elbow. "Sam, you look lovely."

"Thank you, John." She shook her head at Rodney and snapped her fingers in his face. "McKay!"

"Uh, hi. Yes, uhm, very nice." He twirled a finger in her direction.

"Thanks, Rodney. So, Richard sure knows how to throw a party."

"It was our Mr. Gaines. He got this manic gleam in his eye when Richard told him about having a reception, hasn't lost it yet."

"I'm sure Teyla appreciates the effort, the guests of honor look slightly stunned."

"That was her intention. She and Gaines have been thick as thieves for weeks."

"Now if we can keep them from filching the silver on the way out, it'll be perfect. I need another drink," Rodney growled as he headed towards the bar.

John laughed. "He's still mad that Teyla insisted that he had to be here."

"And you?"

"I could do without the monkey suit, but no. Not mad."

"Well, you look great in the monkey suit. It was good to see you, John. I'm glad you made it back here."

"Me, too. Thanks, Sam."

"No thanks necessary — if it weren't for you, we wouldn't be here."

It was nearly dawn before the party wound down, and the guests were escorted back to the gate room. Amelia was on duty, dialing the gate over and over, until the last person who was going home had been sent through the gate. Teyla and Kanaan went to Hoff to rescue Jinto from Torren, but she promised they'd be back later in the day.

Slightly hungover, he changed into his BDU's and went to meet Ronon for breakfast. Evan had won the draw for the day off fair and square, but as long as Phil could reach him on the radio, John could work anywhere in the city.

~*~

Teyla and Ronon spent a great deal of time on Hoff or Sateda, or gate hopping as they recruited more members to the Coalition. They were frequently in Atlantis, but John's days of regularly going offworld had ended with Atlantis' return to Pegasus. Even if John had the heart to find replacements for them, he didn't have the time.

Lorne's team had taken over as first contact. There were twenty-four other gate teams in constant rotation and John had to debrief each one as they returned: intel on current Wraith movements; sorties for getting Dr. Horne's replacement wraith antivirus in circulation; escorts for the various specialists that arrived monthly for projects on Hoff and Sateda and pure science missions, and visiting old friends and new allies. Not to mention coordinating with Caldwell and missions for the Daedalus, and with the Coalition to provide aid for the rarer and rarer Wraith cullings.

He couldn't complain. John had not only gone into this new Expedition with his eyes wide open, he'd asked for this. Granted, having Captain Lovetta cut down on doing a lot of paperwork, sign here, sir, and the command structure of the Marines took care of a great deal of the day to day Company business, but the buck stopped at his desk and the Pentagon and SGC frequently verified that it was still there and in good order. Richard was just as busy, though by way of commiseration, he'd offer John a good glass of Scotch when meetings ran late at night.

For all that, John wasn't bound to Atlantis and it made the times he got off-world all the more prized.

John tagged along when Teyla had invited Rodney to Hoff to go over the plans for Chancellor Druhin's geo-thermal energy project. Teyla and Ronon met them at the gate, and it was a pleasure to see their contagious pride and confidence as they walked through the city, showing off what had been already accomplished and planned developments.

Reports regularly crossed John's desk, but they wasn't a substitute for seeing for himself.

He was always amazed at the efficiency of the men and women in the Field Service Support Group, but they were only there as temporary muscle, working side by side and taking direction from the Coalition crews, as buildings too damaged to be saved were salvaged for material, parks and green spaces sprung up in their place, streets were repaired, and running water restored. John thought it would be a matter of weeks before the FSSG moved onto Sateda, the more damaged of the two, though scavenging there had come to an abrupt halt after the Wraith had destroyed the gate.

The more important changes were intangible, reviving the city that had been a testament to imagination and creative spirit of the Hoffans, and their vision that had begun the process that would end the Wraith threat.

Classrooms were filled with the future instructors for the Iirijjin University, with teachers learning the traditional methods of the students and offering alternatives. Literacy classes in both English and Ancient, because while the gate automatically translated spoken language, not everyone used or had the same writing and reading skills.

The Ferrel Mylan Hospital was up and running, with doctors and interns from both galaxies learning from one another as they treated patients that had come through the gate, and victims of the occasional construction mishap.

The hidden archives from below were being preserved electronically before they were moved to the new library on the surface for translation. Coalition representatives were streaming in and out with their own precious texts, to add to the Galactic knowledge base.

There were a few cafés and taverns, and a former warehouse had been turned into a trade zone that was already operating amidst the dust and noise of ongoing construction and renovation. The factories were still dark, but John figured that it was only a matter time before they started chugging out parts for the planned cable car system that had charmed Teyla in San Francisco. John figured it would fit in well with Hoff's turn of the century ambiance.

They arrived at Ronon's studio, where he showed them the beginnings of a tiny exhibit; the aftermath of a culling in black and white, portraits of survivors, and a series in color of a seaside festival. The rebuilding of Hoff, pictures of Sateda's devastation. Teyla in her fancy dress on Atlantis amongst her admirers at the reception. In the darkroom where Ronon was attempting to restore some old Hoffan photographs, Rodney immediately dove in with an opinion on what Ronon was doing, and they were off and arguing.

John watched the 'discussion' with an idle fondness, storing up the warmth and camaraderie to savor during the weeks when he was back in Atlantis, and Teyla and Ronon were not there, though Rodney would be — that was a given he'd come to depend upon.

They'd been dating for months, and the constant, growing sense of anticipation low in his belly had John pushing for more, but overall Rodney seemed to be sticking to his plan.

 

1.

Dr. Horne leaned back in the pilot's seat as Atlantis took over the jumper's controls. "Man, I wish I had time to do this more often."

The jumper landed gently it its berth, and Horne went through post flight quickly and efficiently, while John sat in the co-pilot's seat, filling out the check ride evaluation form on his PDA. "I can always put you on as an alternate on the mission roster, maybe a monthly rotation."

"Yeah. I could carve out that much time."

John scrawled a note to that effect on the bottom of the form and sent it to Phil to pretty up and file. "Done. You're cleared to take the herpetologists to the mainland, just let Captain Lovetta know when, and he'll take care of the escort arrangements."

"Thanks, Colonel."

"No problem, Doc. It was my pleasure." John followed him out of the jumper, and found Rodney leaning against the wall, hands in his pockets. He looked nervous. "Hey, Rodney. What's up?"

"You done for the day?"

John glanced at his watch, radioed Phil to let him know he was going off duty for the evening. "I'm all yours."

Rodney grinned. "That's what I'm counting on."

The implication gave a jolt to the curl of anticipation in his gut. John fell in beside Rodney as they walked. "Your quarters, or mine?"

Rodney gave him a long sideways glance. "You pick."

"Mine. I've got beer."

"I keep telling you, Budweiser is not beer."

"Doesn't stop you from drinking it."

Rodney's expression turned to aggravation. "Yeah, I can't believe it either."

John snickered as he waved a hand over the control panel, and ushered Rodney in with a light touch on his back. "So?", he asked as he pulled a couple of cans out of the minifrig.

"I know it took a while, but I'm not—just so I can define the parameters a little more clearly, are we talking heterosexual life partners, or more? Because I can do that, if — "

John shook his head and blushed. "I'm not, haven't ever. But I'm not opposed to the idea — just never really..." He trailed off, eyes wide open as Rodney leaned in and kissed him.

It started out simple, but it sent hot shivers down his spine when John leaned into it, opened his mouth and deepened the kiss, licked his way in and palmed Rodney's neck with his free hand, cool and damp from the condensation on the can.

Rodney made a sweet sound of frustration, rumbled and echoed through though him as he pulled away. "Okay?"

John said, "Totally," then pulled Rodney back in and proceeded to demonstrate.


Notes

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Slash, T

Year/Length: 2009, 17,200 words

Pairing: McKay/Sheppard

Spoilers: Post Enemy at the Gate

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun.

Summary: Paper-thin premise: Todd had more ZPM's stashed away. They show 3 in Spoils of War, one or more were destroyed with the cloning facility, Todd had one that his minion stole, and he still had two more in Enemy at the Gate.

Author's Notes: Written in 2009, but the story was so massivly flawed in so many ways, that I had to abandon it in favor of the one that was eventually completed.

Author's Notes Redux: This is completely unfinished. Like possibly one scene short... though I hesitate to classify it as a WIP, as I doubt I will ever come back to it. It is what it is.

Beta: Both Auburn and Icarus graciously took time out of writing their own exchange story to look at this last year, and for that I offer profuse thanks. However, mea culpa maximus as always.

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